I’m not usually one for selfies. They feel like a bit too much. But I’d like to make an exception here to share my health journey. The picture on the right is me about eight years ago. At that time, all I ate was meat. Every meal included some kind of animal protein. I was only 37, and I felt like hell.
On the left is me now — eating nothing but plants. Of course, you can clearly see a difference in the images. But the most dramatic changes actually don't show up in a selfie: My cholesterol has plummeted. My energy level is through the roof. In short, changing my diet truly changed my life.
Today, people tend to think that I’m an athlete, with some kind of über-willpower and drive. This is the ultimate flattery for me. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost all of my life, I've been a lazy bum.
Sure, I did well in school — but that wasn’t because I studied extra-hard. I guess I can thank my father’s genes, which gave me the ability to memorize. And while I played some sports growing up, I mainly sat on the bench, which was comfortable and safe.
As I grew older, I grew lazier. I'd go to the gym from time to time and lift a few weights for my arms but mainly just to impress girls. Yes, I got through medical school and residency, which were demanding and required hard work — but that was more because it was a requirement. I didn’t use willpower; I was driven more by fear of failure. I did what I had to do.
And so about five years ago, I found myself lying on my couch watching TV with my McDonald's sitting on the table next to me. My cholesterol was high, but hell, I knew we had a med for that. I was tired, very tired — but I was a surgeon. I was supposed to be tired. My belly was growing ... big. But that’s supposed to happen with age, right?
If you had said to me at that moment that I would later become a vegan Ironman, I would have laughed. No way. At that point, I had never biked or gone swimming, and running was just too painful. Also, I hated veggies. Despised them. In fact, I'd go weeks without consuming a single fruit or vegetable. I’d maybe agree to some lettuce only if it were placed on my cheeseburger.
I was doing what most people in our society do: avoiding the pain of exercise and enjoying the pleasure of lying on my couch eating high-fat and sugary foods that I picked up easily on the way home from work.
But around this time, I starting noticing the improvements my gastric bypass patients had made. They looked incredible. Many of them had completely turned themselves around, running marathons and eating better. And this made me wonder if I, too, was capable of much more.
I started to really study diet and its effect on the human body. The more I learned, the more shocked I became. You'd think a doctor would understand the relationship between diet and disease, but I had only received about one hour of nutrition in medical school.
I had been taught that the human body was broken and that Western medicine was the only chance we had to survive. If you have a heart attack, you need a bypass; diabetes, you need insulin; and cancer needs chemo. Preventive medicine only meant getting a mammogram.
So you can imagine my shock when it started to dawn on me that I was killing myself. Yes, I had momentary pleasure lying on the couch eating burgers. But I actually felt horrible. I wasn’t avoiding pain — I was creating pain. I was also kind of upset with Western medicine. The fact that we are supposed to have the most advanced medical system in the world yet have some of the highest rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity was a shocking discovery.
So I did something I had never done before: I set goals. In the past, I did what I was told. Now I was going to do something completely against the norm: I was going to do it myself.
I started eating vegetables and fruit. At first, it was tough. But as I tried new foods, I actually began to enjoy the variety. Most importantly, I felt better. I cut out fast food and weaned myself off of meat and processed food. I dropped sugar and cut back on caffeine.
Before I knew it, I felt unbelievably better. My GI system felt great, which it certainly had not before the changes. I had more energy than ever before.
As I started to make these changes, I realized I was eating healthier not just because of my goals but because of my body. Now I skipped the cheeseburger not because of my goals but because it repulsed me. It reminded me of who I used to be and how I used to feel.
Meanwhile, my body seemed to start asking me to exercise. I wanted to test my new resolve and set new fitness goals. I had never really run, swam, or biked before — so why not try a triathlon?
This took me way out of my comfort zone. In the beginning, it was torture. But it got easier. What started as a regimen to reach a goal soon became habit. If I skipped a day, my body would start begging me for activity. I just had to keep moving. I finished a sprint triathlon — including a 500-yard swim, 12-mile bike ride and 3-mile run) and was thrilled. I couldn’t believe I was able to achieve my goal.
But this got me thinking: If I can do a sprint triathlon, what else could I do? All of a sudden, the world seemed full of possibility.
And so I went on to complete the Ironman Texas: A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Crossing that finish line represented so much more than completing a grueling race. To me, crossing that finish line showed that anything was possible.
My life has completely changed. I have a new outlook on health and wellness. I exercise not out of duty but out of desire. I crave salads and veggies. My tastes have changed completely.
The moral is that I have no special talent. I don’t have a super willpower. I just got sick of feeling sick, and discovered that our bodies need to be fueled naturally. The truth is anybody can change their diet and exercise habits. In fact, it’s extremely exciting to discover you can do more than you ever thought possible.
Photo courtesy of the author